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How to start an adventure travel company

Posted: Monday, October 28, 2013

Occasionally someone calls to ask advice on how to start an adventure travel company. Since I love talking about business in general and Adventures in Good Company in particular, I'm always happy to share my experience with the emphasis that it is simply my experience. So here it is:

The best advice I ever got was "Don't quit your day job"! At the time I was working halftime for a boss who was very flexible about how I worked my hours, so it was perfect. But I was past ready to leave and thought that the business could grow faster if I spent all my time working on it. Maybe that's true, who knows? The fact is that it grew much more slowly than I anticipated and I had alot to learn. When 9/11 happened 2 years later and for a few months the phone stopped ringing, I was very happy to have a source of income. It was almost 3 years before it felt marginally safe to leave my job.

The best decision I made was to not be the only guide but to work with women who had guided with me at an organization called Woodswomen. I knew and trusted them. While I would have made more money initially if I had done all the guiding, having other guides gave me the time to build the infrastructure and figure out marketing (two things I knew nothing about) while offering more trips. I did continue to guide because I loved it (one of the reasons I started the company) but by employing other guides too, I was able to build a business, not just create a job for myself.

Many people want to start travel companies because they love to be outdoors and/or they love to travel. There is a difference between loving those and wanting to be the guide responsible for other people loving those (see the post on becoming an adventure travel guide). And there is a difference yet again between loving the outdoors and travel, and guiding, and wanting to be in business. Fortunately it turned out that I loved all three and I loved the steep learning curve of how to run a business. But when I am not out on a trip, I spend just as much time in front of a computer as I did at the job I left. And it was 7 years before I had real vacation (no, guiding is not paid vacation). I'm still lucky if I take 2 weeks of vacation a year. It is also true, however, that when you love what you do, vacation just isn't as important.

Something else I learned was that developing itineraries, while important, was not actually the most important challenge in the first couple of years - marketing was. We could offer the coolest trips in the world, but if no one knew about them, it wouldn't really matter. I thought buying the mailing list of Woodswomen, the company we had worked for that had been around for 20 years, would be enough. It wasn't. Having that connection gave AGC some credibility but basically we mostly had to start from scratch. Fortunately it was just as the internet was becoming more common. The major investment I made of money was having a professionally designed website and the major investment of I made of time was learning how to do internet marketing.

Another key thing I learned was to be careful about how we spent money but to focus on making each trip excellent, not to focus on pinching pennies. This can occur in small ways, like buying a birthday cake. Or it can happen in more major ways. One of our recent trips was supposed to take place in a National Park that was shut down when the government shut down. Since it seemed entirely possible that the shut down would end any day, and since people had already planned their vacations and bought their flights, we didn't want to cancel the trip. But running it meant more lodging and restaurant meals than we had planned. But that was OK, making sure people had a good experience was way more important than making a profit on the trip.

Starting Adventures in Good Company was the best decision I ever made. It has combined constant challenge and learning with meeting lots of amazing people and getting to travel in fascinating places. I'm not sure if having a business plan is critical (I still don't have one and I still can't answer the question of what Adventures in Good Company should look like in 5 years) but knowing yourself, what you love and what your motivations are, is definitely the first step in deciding whether starting an adventure travel company is the right decision for you.

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